Five Swell Comic Novels You Might Not Know

You only have one last weekend of beach reading. Better make it funny. ReadThis asked Larry Doyle, author of Go, Mutants!, (which the San Francisco Chronicle deemed “one of the funniest books of the summer”), to give us his picks.

Leaving aside the classics of Mark Twain, Nathanael West, Evelyn Waugh, Terry Southern, et al., or the well-known work of such contemporary masters as Christopher Buckley, Jennifer Weiner, Lorrie Moore, Jasper Fforde, etc., here are five comic novels guaranteed to delight, unless you have no sense of humor, which many people don’t without ever realizing it.

The Dog of the South by Charles Portis. Ray Midge’s wife Norma has taken off with Guy Dupree in Ray’s car. Ray goes after her to get the car back. This novel contains the funniest riff I have ever read, which involves a deer head with a cigarette in its mouth, which I cannot do justice to here. Portis also wrote True Grit, the John Wayne movie about to become a Coen brothers movie, and three other novels, all of which will be bought by anybody who reads this.

The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman by Bruce Robinson. A coming of age novel both hilarious and heartbreaking, following young Penman as he teaches himself to become a master locksmith in order to break into his grandfather’s legendary pornography collection. And there’s gypsies. Robison also wrote and directed one of the least known funniest movies ever, Withnail and I. (Oddly, he also wrote The Killing Fields.)

A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell. This entry applies to all of Powell’s work, which delighted audiences throughout the forties and fifties and then floated effortlessly away. One might as well start with this one, about a Manhattan newspaper baron, his bodice-ripper writing mistress and Powell’s usual socially astute complications.

The Time Machine Did It, by John Swartzwelder. The first in a series of self-published comic novellas featuring Frank Burly, a hard-boiled detective living in a sci-fi universe, done in the inimitable humor of the writer of 59 Simpsons episodes. You won’t find a funnier book, line for line, except perhaps its sequels, How I Conquered Your Planet and The Exploding Detective.

Elliot Allagash, by Simon Rich. Seymour Herson, 14, is adopted and groomed by the title character, a little monster with a lot of money. My Fair Lady, if Professor Higgins were Satan, the novel’s chief targets are the foibles and enormities of the ultra-wealthy, wrapped in an involving coming-of-age tale. Published just this spring, it is evidence the comic novel lives in something other than mash-up form.

Larry Doyle is the author of Go, Mutants! and I Love You, Beth Cooper, both reputedly comic novels.

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